Local Officials Push Congressional Support for the Community Development Block Grant Higher

by Mike Wallace

For the 7,000 cities and towns that receive Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds each year, directly or indirectly, concerns are growing that that the foundation for transformative community projects is beginning to crumble. Over the last two years, Congress has cut funding for the CDBG program more than 25 percent, from about $4 billion to $2.9 billion, which is divided among 1,200 cities and 50 states. For a program with enormous bipartisan support from leaders elected to local office, the recent drop in support from Congress, as measured by House and Senate letters on spending priorities, appears well out of step with hometown priorities. 

Every year, Members of Congress are given a deadline to tell the House and Senate Appropriations Committees what programs, if any, they consider funding priorities. Appropriators take these recommendations into consideration as they write spending bills. 

Unfortunately, growing pressure to reduce the federal deficit has complicated the traditional processes by which members of Congress signal support for programs. In the case of CDBG, the number of senators and representatives willing to sign annual CDBG support letters to the Appropriations Committee has been shrinking. Worse yet, the growing partisan divide threatens to pin the fate of programs like CDBG to just one party at the federal level, despite support across parties, demographics and sectors at the local level. The divide is reflected in how increasingly lopsided Congressional CDBG support letters have become. 

Last week, however, marked a small reversal of these trends, thanks in large part to calls from local elected officials and state municipal leagues. 

In the House, the Pennsylvania delegation led the way. Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.) wrote and circulated a letter arguing for greater federal investment in CDBG grants at $3.4 billion for FY 2013. Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) joined Brady as the top Republican to cosign the letter and gave the request an important bipartisan boost in the House that it hadn't received last year. In total, 137 members of the House signed the Brady-Barletta CDBG support letter to the Appropriations Committee, an increase of more than 50 compared to last year. 

In the Senate, as in past years, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) authored and circulated a letter urging Senate Appropriators to raise CDBG funding to $3.3 billion for FY 2013. Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), responding to significant outreach from local officials and others in his state, joined Leahy in signing the letter. In total, 33 senators signed the Leahy-Brown CDBG support letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee, a gain of five over last year.

The potential impact of the House and Senate CDBG support letters on FY 2013 funding depends on many factors, including how budget sequestration is dealt with. And bipartisan support for CDBG remains much too lopsided. However, lifting the trend in Congressional support for CDBG is a significant accomplishment and, more importantly, a necessary first step to reversing the downward trend in funding. 

Another step, almost as important as supporting CDBG directly, is to ask if the overall funding level allocated to each Appropriations Subcommittee is adequate to fund federal programs at sufficient levels. This overall funding level, called a 302(b) allocation, can largely determine the fate of federal funding for programs before appropriations bills are even written. 

For instance, programs administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) are funded annually under one single 302(b) allocation. In recent years, community planning and development programs like CDBG have not fared well in this division. Rather than cut funding across the board for all programs when 302(b) allocations wavered, Congress has, reasonably, chosen to maintain investments in job-creating transportation programs and sufficient funding for existing housing rental vouchers. Generally, then, any overall reduction in funds necessarily fall on programs comprising the development side of HUD, such as CDBG and, last year, Sustainable Communities Grants.

Earlier this year, in an effort to provide appropriators with the necessary additional resources to fulfill House and Senate CDBG funding request letters, NLC spearheaded a large coalition of HUD and DOT stakeholders to urge Congress to increase the overall DOT-HUD 302(b) allocation. A total of 178 organizations joined NLC on the letter to Congressional leaders. 

NLC expects Congress to set 302(b) allocations sometime in the next three weeks. Soon after, appropriators will release their first drafts of FY 2013 spending bills that give funding levels for individual federal programs like CDBG. After that, local leaders and stakeholders will have a small number of additional opportunities through amendments and House/Senate negotiations to impact funding for their priorities. 

The letters and lists of those who signed can be found on NLC's website.